The W-League weekend in 280 characters or less
Melbourne Victory stay in contention for a finals spot after 1-0 win over Western Sydney, Adelaide give their talismanic captain the best possible send-off with 2-0 defeat of Sydney FC, Canberra return to winning ways after 4-1 thumping of Brisbane Roar, and Newcastle record their best result so far with 4-0 win over Perth.
The Challengers (Adelaide, Canberra, Victory)
There's a reason so many of cinema's greatest sports films follow the trials and tribulations of the underdogs. Rocky, The Karate Kid, Chariots of Fire, Cool Runnings, The Mighty Ducks; some of the best sports stories are about the plucky challenger who scraps and scrapes through various difficulties to reach the big dance. There are setbacks, doubts, questions that make us wonder whether they'll get there at all. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't, but what we loved most was watching how they navigate the road.
This round saw the W-League's three remaining finals contenders -- Adelaide, Canberra and Victory -- do just that, delivering a couple punches that forced the league's favourites backwards against the ropes. Adelaide's and Canberra's wins over ladder-leaders Sydney and Brisbane respectively were the kinds of games that, if they were part of a film, would be the inspirational action-packed montages complete with a high-energy soundtrack that you rapidly track down on Spotify to have on regular rotation at the gym.
Each win also brought with it their own sub-plots: the final game of departing Adelaide captain Dylan Holmes, who has earned a highly-deserved move to Sweden after serving her hometown club for several consecutive seasons, while Michelle Heyman equalled the W-League's all-time goal scoring record (70) after slotting home Canberra's third in what would be a convincing 4-1 win over Brisbane.
But the cinematic masterpiece that is the 2020-21 W-League season has not yet reached its climax; the finals series shimmers on the horizon, agonisingly within reach for the three clubs who we have followed through the ups and downs of their various seasons. Adelaide, Canberra and Victory enter the final few regular season games separated by just four points, and with a number of heavyweights still to fight (Adelaide face Brisbane next week, Victory play Sydney in round 11, as do Canberra in the final game of the season), there's little doubt we'll get the dramatic final-round showdown that this chaotic season truly deserves.
When Perth drew 1-1 against Canberra in late January, there was a little spark of hope that the club's players had found a deep well of resilience, overcoming the border closures, the late signings, the quarantined head coach, the limited preseason and the fixture reshuffles that had massively affected their start to the campaign.
But after that promising 1-1 draw, Western Australia went into lockdown again, and the momentum that Perth had seemingly begun to generate sputtered out. Since then, Perth have lost four of their last four games, conceding 15 goals and scoring just two.
Unlike Western Sydney and Newcastle, who have been gathering pace towards the back-end of the campaign, the constant interruptions to Perth's entire season means they haven't been able to put together the kind of run of games that is often needed for a team to create rhythm and confidence. Indeed, so gargantuan was Perth's handicap coming into the season, it's almost foolish to think they'd be any further along than what they currently are.
It's difficult to assess Perth's season against those of all other clubs considering how many short straws they've drawn. Given they had just 10 players signed less than a month out from the start of the season, it's kind of miraculous they've put together a team and managed to play the games they have at all.
This, more than any other, will be Perth's "asterisk" season -- a season so marred by forces beyond their control that trying to analyse their results and performances in the normal way becomes almost impossible. Predictably, Monday afternoon saw them delivered yet another speed-hump as what should have been a home game against Canberra now must be played at Canberra, followed by a home game four days later. This club just cannot catch a break, so perhaps it's only fair that all of us give them one.
Here's the tea
There's a reason "home advantage" has become one of football's many foundational pillars. Having a field, a stadium, a place for footballers to call home is not just a physical convenience; there is something psychological, even spiritual, to the idea of having a home ground. They are not just locations -- they are monuments to the teams, the players, the histories and the communities they represent.
Some of the world's biggest teams are inextricably tied to their home stadiums: Anfield, Maracana, Santiago Bernabeu, Old Trafford, Camp Nou, La Bombonera. In the women's game, these stadiums and the myths they have helped create are significant in a different way. These are not home spaces; spaces of community or belonging. They are, mostly, places out of reach. They are aspirational, something to strive towards. They are symbols of what women's football could be, all things being equal.
The fact that some of the biggest attendances at women's club football matches in the world have occurred in these men's stadiums (Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano, Tigres vs. Monterrey at the Estadio BBVA, Manchester City vs. Manchester United at the Etihad, Chelsea vs. Tottenham at Stamford Bridge) speaks to the disparities that exist in the relationships between gender, space and football. Those games act as glimpses into an alternative reality that could exist if clubs, leagues and federations invested as much time, money and energy into the women's game as they do the men's.
While the W-League does not have the same broad appeal to history, culture or global fanbases as the teams above, the idea of home grounds and the benefits they can bring to women's teams are the same. Home stadiums are anchors; they are spaces where teams embed themselves in the local community, spaces around which a club's supporters build their daily and weekly routines, and spaces where players build emotional and psychological fortresses for themselves, their teammates, and their fans. Home grounds and the fan bases they facilitate also have proven positive effects on team performance and results.
Which is one of the major reasons why the W-League's constant ground-hopping is becoming a problem. The other, as we saw this past weekend, is there is almost no consistency or control over the standards of the fields being used. Melbourne Victory's home game against Western Sydney, which was supposed to take place at Lakeside Stadium on Thursday night, was rapidly moved to AAMI Park due to the former field not passing an inspection the day beforehand, having been used for another event earlier in the week.
The consequence was that the game had to be played behind closed doors due to the lack of available time for a COVID plan to be put in place at AAMI Park. While the players may have benefited from the upgrade to the pitch itself, Melbourne City and Matildas defender Emma Checker mentioned on the broadcast that the pay-off of playing in a cavernous, empty stadium is sometimes even more difficult.
On the one hand, I understand the logic: given the league is still in its nascent stages, they want to take matches to as many stadiums -- and reach as many fans -- as possible. It's also difficult to find consistently good-quality home grounds that aren't used by other events and codes throughout a crowded summer schedule.
But it's still important to think about what is lost by doing so. Three teams have played at four or more "home" grounds this season (Sydney, Melbourne Victory, and Melbourne City). Ground-hopping forces players to work on various, unfamiliar pitches; some of which, like Cromer Park in Manly, Epping Stadium in Melbourne or Dorrien Gardens in Perth, rank extremely poorly on pitch feedback reports. Not only do players suffer physically by constantly chopping and changing fields, but the very idea of home advantage is lost when a number of teams play at several "home" grounds over the course of a three-month season.
There is something in the idea that in trying to appeal to everybody, the league is appealing to nobody; a fanbase cannot grow if the thing around which it revolves is constantly shifting. A community cannot grow when it is unmoored from its sense of place. An identity cannot be established if it is fleeting, moving through our hands like wisps of cloud.
This section is as much an argument for more consistent, high-quality home grounds in the W-League as it is for a longer, fully professional season. It is about giving women players and their fans the structures that will allow them to maximise what they do best: play brilliant football. Because as the men's game has shown us, when you give them the environments and the support to flourish, the rest -- the money, the fans, the history, the culture; everything we romanticise about the game -- will follow.
Is there a gif of that?
We all remember Indiah-Paige Riley's infamous butt goal for Brisbane Roar. Now we have the defensive equivalent thanks to Wanderers goalkeeper Sarah Willacy using her own behind to ensure her team didn't fall further ... behind.
A bonus gif this week to commemorate Heyman's 70-goal milestone against Brisbane Roar. Her "Christ The Redeemer" celebration is kind of fitting considering how absolutely central she has been to Canberra both this season and over the last decade. A fitting stance for one of the W-League's greatest leaders.
will never forget this celebration from @Mheyman23 after equalling the #WLeague's all-time goal scoring record.— Samantha Lewis (@battledinosaur) March 7, 2021
she is the epitome of joy. we're so lucky to be able to watch this incredible woman do her thing on and off the pitch. #CBRvBRI #YouLoveToSeeIt pic.twitter.com/yjBWiEVdb9